For one week, I owned no
. That was about as long as I could stay away. I have been a Microsoft-aholic ever since the company came public. I weathered a tough transition to Windows 98. I weathered a half-dozen personal-computer slowdown scares.
But in the end, the one-two combination of relentless
pursuit and an earnings conference call from hell just plain
wore me down. I
bolted at 76, and our trading sheets were suddenly Microsoft-free for the first time since I established my hedge fund in 1987.
Ten points and many billions later, after the dust cleared last week, we jumped back in. I simply can't stay away. As much as I think these guys may have blown the quarter and misread the Justice Department as a bunch of guys in bad suits who worked for little money (in fact, they were a lot smarter and flashier than the 'Soft defenders), I admit it. I can't stay away. This beautiful engine of a company in the end has made me too much money. I was happy to dodge a 10-point hit in "the name" (as we call all stocks at our company), but I couldn't take watching this stock go back up without me.
And I think the company can go back up. Here's why. First, understand that -- despite all of the headlines that said that the stock dove because of the Justice Department's
breakup call -- that's simply not the real reason.
Stocks go up because of sponsorship and promotion. Companies get promoted on Wall Street by analysts. These analysts get their cues on how to promote their wares from the companies themselves, on earnings conference calls held after the completion of every quarter.
These well-scripted affairs always give you a play in three acts, the past, the present and the future. Microsoft usually puts on a magnificent show, with each act better than the previous. This time only the first act sounded like Microsoft, talking about how its growth, the sheer margin of gain vs. the previous quarter, was greater than most companies will ever make in their corporate lifetimes.
It was all downhill from there. The present is clouded, they said, by the uncertainties involving Windows 2000 and a corporate business slowdown. The future? Oh my, did this get the promoters in a tizzy. The future no longer holds out hope for a 20% growth rate. Fifteen is more like it. The gasps were audible during the question-and-answer period. People wanted to know if it was the death of the personal computer, if it meant the end of an era, if the company was being extra-cautious or did they really have to chop revenue out of their forecasts?
The company balked at every chance to change the dialogue from discouraging to encouraging. They just wouldn't go there. When stocks get promoted on the street, the chief weapon in the promoter's arsenal is the growth rate, as in, "You might want to buy this great company that is growing at 20%, but sells at a multiple to future earnings that is much lower than it has historically." That had certainly been the bull case for Microsoft.
Until that conference call.
Without the bull case, analysts deserted the name in droves. That sent the stock reeling to the mid-60s, almost a 50% decline from its high. Price declines in the face of estimated earnings and revenue-per-share cuts are part of the business world we have come to expect. Stocks tend not to come back fast after estimate cuts because, once growth gets ratcheted down, it is hard to think about what might make it reaccelerate.
So why bother to buy it? Why bother to get back in the game? OK, let me give you three reasons. One is that Steve Ballmer, the head of Microsoft, was a bear about this company's stock price for longer than I can remember,. He alone has been candid among execs in tech saying that prices had gotten out of hand. Last week he changed his stance. He beat his considerable chest with the most vocally bullish outlook for the company -- and the stock -- I have ever heard him give. And I've known this guy since college.
Second, is that -- while I think Microsoft is honest as the day is long and is not deliberately low-balling us, or trying to become the underdog in this Justice case -- I do believe they are too pessimistic about their own outlook. Maybe they are beleaguered. Maybe it is because 'Soft has a new CFO. Whatever. After listening to dozens of computer and computer-parts makers on conference calls during the last two weeks, Microsoft was the only company that was downbeat. Change the water, guys: You've got the Justice Department blues. It just ain't that bad out there.
Finally, we got back in because, I am a Microsoft-aholic and I know myself. I couldn't live with myself if this stock ever came back to where it was without me. I am willing to risk another 10 points of pain, a possibility if Justice presses this ridiculous breakup plan, in order not to miss that glorious resurrection, even as it seems quite dim right now.
I guess you could say I just can't stay away.
James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. At time of publication, his fund was long Microsoft. His fund often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns, both before and after the columns are published, and the positions that his fund takes may change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Cramer's writings provide insights into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to comment on his column at